My remarks upon the retirement of Thelma Armstrong, who worked at the New School for thirty-six years.
The writer Colson Whitehead says that you become a New Yorker when what was on the corner previously is more real to you than what is there now. In this provisional city, set to change, nostalgia functions as authenticity, and the city we arrive in is forever our real New York.
I think this may be true of the New School as well, bound as it to reinvention. The real New School is the one I arrived in. The department store escalators of the Graduate Faculty building, the squeezed-in-Bachelors Program offices on the 6th floor, where our advising sessions with students were accompanied by singing one afternoon, yelling the next. (Ostensibly there was a room for acting classes next to us, but I’m still not sure.) Joe’s Diner. (Do not get me started on O Cafe.)
Most of all, though, my New School was Linda Dunne, Sondra Farganis, George Calderado, Wendy Kohli, Jonathan Veitch, Almaz Zelleke, and Thelma Armstrong. And the only one on that list still here, at least for a few more days, is Thelma.
I think Thelma may be that person for many of us, our real New School. She welcomed us when we arrived; she gathered us for meetings and memorials; and she raised her eyebrows when we asked a question for which she definitely knew the answer, but would not be telling you.
I also had the distinct pleasure of being with Thelma in a classroom. I am saying it this particular way because while I was the assigned teacher in classes in which she was enrolled as a student, there is no question that I learned more from Thelma than she learned from me. One course I taught was on Paul Robeson, taking his varied career in sports, theater, singing, and politics as a path through 20th century U.S. history. It was also about the ongoing, contested debates about his legacy and who gets to tell this story. There were some challenging conversations given that the structure of the course encompassed some of the issues–most plainly, I was a white teacher leading a course on a mythic African American figure. I vividly remember an aside conversation with Thelma in which I was whining some version of “why is this class so difficult” and her response stopped me: you don’t realize how vulnerable some of us are in these conversations, you don’t realize how difficult it is to trust you.
Thelma gave me the gift of her trust in that moment and beyond, which has had profound meaning for me ever since. I may still be naive but her remark is ever-present, a prod, compassionate but piercing. And as I age in place, watching Thelma over these many years, always knowing that I never see her as much as I need to, I’ve come to realize that her trust in us at the New School is the foundation of this place more than any building or new program or latest charette ideating plans for the future. If our rhetoric is grander than our actions, particularly on issues of racial justice and accountability, Thelma defies this daily by her acts of trust, generosity, and fearlessness. It is always incredibly busy wherever she is, she is always facing constant demands, impatience, and disappointment. But she is also always reaching out, offering the possibility of trust, if we have the courage and conviction to follow her. She will not be gone from here because Thelma is my New School, the real one, always.